Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons is a metaphor that was first used by Hardin Harding to describe a dilemma of population and its use of resources in an article of the same name that was published in the journal Science in 1968. In this paper Hardin defined the problem of use of a resource by multiple individuals who act independently for their own interest resulting in the depletion of resource. Hardin used an example of herders and their cows grazing in a piece of pasture to illustrate the problem, as the core content of the paper. In this example, each of the herders considers putting as much cows as he can on the pasture advantageous, even if the increasing size of his herd exceeds the total capacity of the pasture resulting in its getting damage of permanent or temporary basis. Though each herder gets advantage by adding a single cow to the pasture, the damage to the pasture is shared equally among all (Vallero, 2006).

The tragedy of the commons points to an important problem in exploitation of resource among multiple people. It shows that that if a resource is utilized by multiple people on the basis of only individual self-interest than although each of the person may get a partial benefit  from the resource but the disadvantage of this approach can be much more severe as it may devoid all the people of the resource completely. Hardin in his paper also described the way in which the tragedy of the commons appears in the society.  For example, though the pollution, chemical or otherwise, is created by man on individual basis, but this pollution when combined with pollution created by other individuals creates an environment which is dangerous for all. Hardin stated the rationale for this as the cost of polluting being lower than the cost of cleaning wastes before they are discharged. Being an evolutionary scientist himself, Hardin made a case that nature favors those who make use of the common resources at the expense of more restrictive users. He also argued that voluntary contributions made to create institutions which could manage the common often fall short because of the fear of free-riders. For this, Hardin made a suggestion of mutual coercion, which was agreed upon by the majority of affected people (Hardin, 1968).

Through this paper Hardin has attempted to highlight the alarming increase in world population and its effect on Earths ecosystem. It has been highlighted in the literature that world population which is currently at 6.6 billion is rising at a significant rate and is expected to be around 9 billion by 2050 (Van Vugt, 2009). This rate of increase in population is very high as compared to previous centuries. And as the human negatively contribute to the environment, the problems related to it are expected to grow with the population which can lead to a potential disaster for the future generations. This fact is now accepted globally, hence, there is a consensus that humans need to make a serious effort toward more effective environmental sustainability.

The tragedy of the commons has also become a key concept for researchers in understanding a number of ecological problems which are both local and global in natures. However, despite its strong logic it has been criticized for two reasons. First, Hardin has been criticized for assuming that all efforts made to institutionalize the use of resources by commons are met with failures as many of the scientists which have studied environmental problems in the real world have found many successful resource management community project throughout the world which were strictly regulated rather than taking a free for all approach. These include institutions for the preservation of agricultural lands among commons, irrigation system for distribution of water among lands as well as fisheries. The second point of criticism is a more basic one and relates to the notion of all humans thinking for their self-interest.  Philosopher criticizing this approach believe that a number of researches in a variety of areas in social sciences have proven that humans are not totally unresponsive to the welfare of their environment or other people.  Researchers have also come to know through studies about the motives, apart from self-interest, which take part in decision making and still give rise to the commons dilemma.

One of the solutions that have been suggested by the literature for tragedy of the commons is the use of resource management strategies with four key components which are information, identity, institution and incentives. These four components correspond to the four central motives understanding, belonging, trusting and self-enhancing, which are employed for decision making in social dilemmas (Van Vugt, 2009).  The use of Information in a resource management strategy is crucial because, people have the right to understand the environment they live in, in order to understand the scenarios of uncertainty. The uncertainty about the environment tends to give rise to resource overuse as people become optimistic about the future and misjudge the damage they do to the environment (Opotow  Weiss, 2000) . Hence, by providing people with information about the use as well as availability of the resource, successful resource management can be conducted. The researchers have also suggest that the use of information about local resources is much more persuasive then the use of information relating to the global effect on environment due to resource misuse (Van Vugt, 2009). The use of identity is also important for successful resource management for the commons, as people have a strong sense of belonging to a social group and the strength of their social identity effects how much they are willing to contribute to the community (Baumeister  Leary, 1995).

For example, since any individual tends to identify themselves with their family and friends, any appeal from these groups to the individual would be much more persuasive. Furthermore, when people consider themselves to be part of a particular group, they are usually more concerned about their reputation within the group, hence this can also promote their positive contribution toward the environment. For example, if a household is asked to make a public commitment to save electricity can actually reduce the use of energy by them by 20 (Van Vugt, 2009). Institutions also provide important contribution toward successful resource management. Though authorities play a key role in the regulation of resource among commons, they are always in danger of being undermined by what Hardin refers to as free riders (OGorman, Henrich,  Van Vugt, 2008). This erodes the trust of public on them. In order to solve this problem, it is important to ensure that people get treated fairly and respectfully, hence it is crucial the authorities or institutions must make use of fair decision-making rules as well as procedures. The last component of the solution, incentives, is also very important in successful resource management. For example, the use of monetary incentive schemes, such as subsidy on energy efficient electrical devices, encourages its use among people which helps in reducing the damage being done to the environment (Van Vugt, 2009).


Post a Comment